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As Neighborhood Transforms, No Room for Red Hook Trolleys

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger explores what the removal of the Red Hook trolleys means for the neighborhood.

[The last trolley in Red Hook sits in an empty warehouse, its future uncertain. All of the other trolleys were removed from the waterfront on February 9th, 2014. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

When the Red Hook trolleys were carted away last week, it was yet another nail in the coffin for the neighborhood's colorful history. Over the past decade, Red Hook has been transformed from a gritty post-industrial backwater to a chic destination populated by shiny new establishments. Where wild dogs and burnt out cars were once common, masses of visitors now consume Ikea meatballs, shop at Fairway, and eat at massive new eateries like Brooklyn Crab and Hometown Bar-B-Que. The trolleys were a reminder of a different era in Red Hook, a time of ambitious dreams to improve residents' lives. A time when a man could rip up the cobblestones, lay track, and run an electric street car down to the end of his line.

Bob Diamond, the man who rediscovered the world's oldest subway tunnel underneath Atlantic Avenue in 1980, had grand plans for Red Hook in the 1990s. With hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from the city, he and his organization, the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association, had purchased over a dozen trolleys and built a half mile of track along Red Hook's streets. "The trolley route we planned would take you from Red Hook to downtown Brooklyn in 12 minutes," said Diamond, and would have connected with the Atlantic Avenue tunnel. "Everything was going along fine until the second day Bloomberg was in office, when we got a letter from the DOT saying our project was terminated." Diamond still doesn't know why the city killed his project, but claims that the Department of Transportation moved quickly to rip up his tracks and confiscate his building supplies. "They wanted to make sure our project was dead."

Today, all that remains of Bob Diamond's trolley dream is two short sections of broken track and one last trolley, sitting alone in a warehouse. For over a decade, three other trolleys sat out on the waterfront, marooned. As they decayed, their popularity grew, until they became neighborhood icons. "There's probably photos all over the planet of people posing in front of them," said photographer Thomas Rupolo, whose book Images of Red Hook contains several shots of the trolleys. When Fairway Market opened its doors in 2006, the popularity of the trolleys skyrocketed, with lunchtime crowds exploring their interiors. The news that his streetcars had become a Red Hook destination was a shock to Bob Diamond. "For me, they were just a painful reminder of a failed project. Now I'm finding out that people were thinking of them as their trolleys. They became almost public property."

"For me, they were just a painful reminder of a failed project. Now I'm finding out that people were thinking of them as their trolleys. They became almost public property."—Bob Diamond

Like much of Red Hook, the trolleys did not fare well in Hurricane Sandy. Five feet of water flooded through them and into Fairway, which was closed for four months after the storm. The corrosive effects of the saltwater hastened an already precipitous decline. Over the past year, the neighborhood has struggled back to its feet and old stalwarts like Sunny's Bar and Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pie have reopened, but many businesses report that they are still not fully operational. Throughout the recovery process, the trolleys sat and rotted, until they were removed by the O'Connell Organization to be donated to a museum. "We had been searching for a potential taker of these trolleys since Hurricane Sandy, but unfortunately, were unable to find any interested parties," said Greg O'Connell. "The damage done to these trolleys over the past decade, along with the impact of the Hurricane, had made it incredibly difficult for interested parties to make sense of taking on the cost involved." Like the demolished Revere Sugar Refinery and the paved-over Todd Shipyard, the trolleys' status as neighborhood icons may soon be forgotten, as a tide of new residents washes into the area. "It's sad to see them go," said Thomas Rupolo. "We have so little left on the waterfront as it is."

For Bob Diamond, the last remaining trolley is the final piece of a dramatically reduced empire. In 2010, he was banned from re-entering the Atlantic Avenue tunnel, ending decades of access and his underground tour business. Yet he remains optimistic. "What we're hoping now, with the change in administration, is that we can restart our projects," said Diamond. He would like to hear from the new mayor and the new DOT commissioner, and would also like his last trolley to be relocated to a safer location. "That trolley could be a new symbol of a new street car line." For Red Hook's past, though, it may be too late.

The train tracks laid by Bob Diamond and the BHRA are obscured by snow, but the trolley poles are still visible.

Behind the Fairway Market, where the three outdoor trolleys used to stand. These tracks must be crossed to reach Fairway's food court.

The three trolleys on October 30, 2012, the morning after Hurricane Sandy. Five feet of water had flooded through the trolleys and into Fairway.

Though the water had already receded by the morning after the storm, many of the O'Connell Organization's warehouses were badly damaged.

The last remaining trolley, seen here in January 2013, was housed inside the Eye Graphics + Printing company, which was inundated with six feet of water.

By February 2014, Eye Graphics had gone out of business, leaving the trolley alone in an empty warehouse. "We have yet to decide what to do with the tracks, poles, and the trolley car," said Greg O'Connell.

Though it was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, the trolley appears to be in decent physical shape, with no visible signs of rust.

Inside, the details of the trolley are still in pristine condition, with intact seats, handles, doors and windows. "That one is completely restored," said Bob Diamond.

The conductor's seat, still in good condition. "The history of Brooklyn is linked to trolleys," said Thomas Rupolo. "It would have been great to see them come back."

The BHRA logo, seen here in January 2013, has since peeled off the side of the trolley. "We are hoping Greg O'Connell will move it to a safe place," said Diamond.

Bob Diamond inside the Atlantic Avenue tunnel in 2007. He still has not been down to Red Hook. "I don't want to get myself into some kind of depressed state."

"It was a complete shock," said Diamond, on hearing his three outdoor trolleys had been removed. "I couldn't believe it."

"We are trying to find renewed interest in our project," said Diamond. "It would be a really great thing."
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Tunnel vision [The Verge]
· Red Hook Trolley coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]